It’s important to exercise safely and effectively. Robin Gargrave of YMCAfit, one of the UK’s top trainers of fitness professionals, shares his tips on getting into shape safely.

You’ll also find plenty of tips on building stamina, strength and flexibility, as well as diet and motivation.

When should I exercise?

There’s no right time to exercise. It depends on the individual. “You need to listen to your body,” says Robin. “Some people feel rough in the morning, whereas others can hop out of bed and do a 10 mile run.”

Don’t exercise for two to three hours after a heavy meal. If you exercise straight after a large meal, you’re likely to experience nausea, stomach cramps and discomfort.

Can I have a snack before exercising?

You can have a small snack before your workout, such as a piece of fruit or a drink. Robin advises against snacks that are high in sugar, including soft drinks.

“You might get a quick energy boost but it’ll probably be followed by a sudden energy slump.” Choose starchy foods, such as brown bread or bananas, which help keep your energy levels constant during exercise.

Should I warm up before exercise?

Warming up is essential before exercising. “Without a warm-up, your workout won’t be as efficient as it could be,” says Robin. “Your muscles won’t be warm and will be less supple, which can increase your risk of injury.”

Start with slow, gentle movements, such as walking, and gradually build the intensity, such increasing your walking pace to a gentle jog.

Eight to 10 minutes will warm up the muscles and get them ready for higher-intensity activity. The warm-up process sends oxygen to the muscles, where it works with glucose to produce energy, Robin says. This ensures that the body works more efficiently, and that your workout gives better results.

What is aerobic activity?

Aerobic activity is any activity where the body’s large muscles move in a rhythmic manner for a continuous period of time. Also called endurance activity, it’s great for improving the health of your heart and lungs. Examples include:

  • running
  • walking
  • cycling
  • swimming

“Aerobic activity is vital for burning off calories, weight management and general health,” says Robin.

Find out more about different types of aerobic activity.

What’s the importance of strength training?

Strength-training activities, such as weight lifting, involve short bursts of effort. Strength training burns calories and builds and strengthens muscle. Benefits of strength training include increasing bone density, strengthening joints, and improving balance, stability and posture.

“It increases your ability to do everyday tasks without getting so tired,” says Robin. “The more muscle mass you have, the easier it is to burn calories, even when the body is at rest.”

Find out more about muscle-strengthening activities.

Do I need to stretch?

Stretching helps reduce muscle tension, improves flexibility and posture, and reduces your chance of injury. To stretch properly and safely, slowly stretch the muscle just until you feel resistance. Resistance is the point at which you feel a slight pull. Stop and hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds without bouncing up and down.

During the stretch, breathe rhythmically and slowly. Don’t hold your breath. Make sure your muscles are warmed up before you stretch. The best time to stretch is after exercise, when your muscles are most supple.

What’s the importance of cooling down?

Immediately after your workout, take time to cool down. This gradually lowers your heart rate and allows your body to recover. It may help reduce muscle injury, stiffness and soreness. Walk or continue your activity at a low intensity for five to 10 minutes. It’s then an ideal time to stretch, and you’re more likely to improve your flexibility.

Should I have a rest day?

With moderate-intensity aerobic activity, whether it’s heavy gardening or cycling, you’re encouraged to do a little every day. Adults should do 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. Children aged 5–18 should do 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity every day.

It’s important to rest when you do vigourous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running. The body repairs and strengthens itself between workouts, and over-training can weaken even the strongest athletes.

What should I drink?

It’s important to drink fluid during any exercise that lasts for more than 30 minutes.

Water may be enough for low-intensity exercise up to 45–50 minutes.

For higher-intensity exercise of 45–50 minutes or more, or lower-intensity exercise lasting several hours, a sports drink can help maintain energy levels and its salt will improve hydration. Choose drinks that contain sodium (salt) when exercise lasts longer than one hour, or in any event when large amounts of salt will be lost through your sweat.

How do I stay motivated?

Make sure your exercise regime includes activities that you like doing rather than what someone else tells you to do. Exercise with a friend or friends so that you can all keep each other motivated.

“Set new challenges to keep yourself stimulated,” says Robin. “And keep going. It’s always hard at first, even for elite athletes, but it does get easier.”

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